Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 10/11/2002)

Meet the absent Monnet professor
A crack appears in the elderly racket
The link we mustn't make
A blast from Burchill

Meet the absent Monnet professor

One of the odder features of our current politics is the way that in each of the eight "regions" of England an identical and lavishly-funded campaign is being waged to promote elected regional assemblies. At the same time, the campaign's supporters in each area deny that the plan to give England elected regional governments is in any way connected with Brussels's insistence that some form of regional government must exist throughout the EU.

One of the most voluble champions of an elected assembly for the North-East is John Tomaney, a professor of regional government at Newcastle University. In a recent article in the Newcastle Journal he poured scorn on scaremongers who claim that regional governments are some kind of "Euro-plot", and denied that they had any link with the EU. Inspired by this outspoken position, Peter Troy, the chairman of the local branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, engaged the profesor to air his views at a public meeting in Darlington.

Professor Tomaney - who is a Jean Monnet professor funded by the European Commission, and who has written extensively on the part played by regionalisation in EU integration - was going to face a strong challenge to his claim that regionalisation was not linked to the EU. Sadly, on the morning of the public meeting, Mr Troy heard from the professor that he would not be able to attend, for "domestic reasons".

Deprived of his side of the story, what the FSB members did hear was an account of how the drive for regional government in Britain began in 1970. Edward Heath put forward the idea of regional funding by Brussels as a way to compensate Britain for the huge financial disadvantage that it would suffer under the Common Agricultural Policy because it imported much more food than other Common Market countries. This led in 1975 to the setting up of Brussels's Regional Development Fund.

In the early 1990s Britain was told that, under new rules, it would be difficult for local authorities to apply for these funds unless there were regional bodies in place to receive them. This prompted John Gummer to set up "government offices" in each of England's eight "regions" in 1994. In 1998 these were merged by John Prescott with his new regional development agencies, each with its own non-elected assembly.

Mr Prescott had been a champion of regional government since he was leader of the Labour group of MEPs in the European Parliament in the 1970s. (This was waved aside by Prof Tomaney in his article as no more than "a trip made to Brussels 30 years ago".) His present drive to transform these assemblies into parliaments is merely a final step in the process.

Any link between the EU and regional government, however, is conspicuously airbrushed out of the picture. At a recent public meeting in Horsham, Sussex, another academic champion of regional government, Dr Lawrence Silverman, derided a member of the audience who referred to the connection as being "outside the world of reality". This was particularly surprising since Dr Silverman used to work for the politics department at Reading University, run by another Monnet professor; and the chief current task of the South-East Regional Assembly, of which Dr Silverman is vice-chairman, is to draft a "European Strategy for the South-East Region", to cover business strategies, housing and transport, all based on policies originating from Brussels.

These vehement disclaimers carry more than a hint of smoke and mirrors.

A crack appears in the elderly racket

The horrifying case of Gordon and Nora Watts, the octogenarian couple whom Oxfordshire social services placed in separate care homes miles apart, has again highlighted the scandal of this country's care of the elderly.

Last month I reported that finally there might be a chink of light, thanks to the Competition Commission, which had overruled the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in its refusal to hear a complaint against social services in Northern Ireland. The complaint was that social services were rigging the market by providing 100 more per week for each resident in their own care homes than they were for residents in privately-run homes. This has for years been a crucial weapon in the drive to force private-sector care homes out of business, though many of them are far better than the soulless "granny factories" run by social services or by the trusts that take them over.

After the Competition Commission challenged this misuse of public funds, it was reported that Gordon Brown might have to find an extra 1 billion a year to provide a level playing field for private homes. The OFT has now decided, however, that the commission's ruling applied only to Northern Ireland. Further complaints about this nationwide racket must be treated individually.

The case has aroused particular interest in Sheffield. Two years ago, the city's few surviving privately-run care homes made a formal complaint to the district auditor, arguing that the city council was giving 380 a week for each resident in homes run by Sheffcare, the body set up to take over the city's state-owned care homes, and only 246 for residents in the private homes. David Coldrick, a solicitor who is an expert on law concerning care of the elderly, was surprised at how long it took the district auditor to investigate. It then emerged that the district auditor was the accountancy firm KPMG, which was also acting as auditor for both Sheffield city council and Sheffcare.

When this matter was raised, KPMG explained that there are "Chinese walls" to keep the relevant parts of its empire apart. Last week, Mr Coldrick learnt that the council's auditors had still not replied to the district auditor's questions. The owners of the private homes inevitably wonder how effectively a problem is likely to be resolved in a system that allows the same firm both to hear their complaint and to represent those against whom it has been made.

The link we mustn't make

Last Monday I took part in an hour-long edition of Radio Four's You and Yours on what journalists delight in calling "red tape'. The programme's stars were a succession of victims of mindless bureaucracy, from teachers to care-home owners, from a publican to a fisherman. Several of their stories had been featured in this column and their interviews eloquently conveyed the disaster that misregulation inflicts on our national life. They were sadly let down, however, by a trivialising babel of responses from the over-large studio panel, which shed little light on the problems.

Halfway through the programme, it seemed that I had been dropped from the discussion, possibly after I cited the EU's Common Fisheries Policy as a glaring example of how bureaucracy had created a catastrophe. Clearly any mention of Brussels was considered irrelevant to a discussion of "red tape".

If I had been asked, like the others, for a closing comment, I would have pointed out that the one contributor who showed no understanding of the problem was the Government spokesman, Lord Macdonald, who tried in his hectoring fashion to maintain that it doesn't exist. Since he was the only person in the studio with power to do anything about it, this offered little hope that a remedy might be on the way.

A blast from Burchill

In an article in The Guardian, Julie Burchill expresses her hope that I (and poor Iain Duncan Smith) will die "long, painful, lingering deaths" for daring to point out that the Government's new asbestos regulations are hopelessly misdrafted and based on flawed science, and will make a lot of money for some pretty unscrupulous people.

Miss Burchill described me as a "curtain twitcher" most notorious for having dared, back in the 1960s, to criticise the "permissive society". She overlooked the fact that I am now more notorious as a racist xenophobe who so hates anything "European" that I would like to see it made a criminal offence to listen to Beethoven or eat French cheese. If this sounds a trifle mad, I fear it is no dottier than Miss Burchill's views on asbestos.